Our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, fulfilled the entire Torah even though they lived before the Torah had been given, yet in this week’s Torah portion, G-d commands Abraham to circumcise himself. Why hadn’t Abraham already done this if he observed all the other commandments?
The answer is related to the fact that there is a qualitative aspect to worship, to mitzvah performance. (For example, if a person gives charity grudgingly, he or she has still performed a mitzvah; yet that same mitzvah is of a much higher quality if the donor gives wholeheartedly.)
Along these lines, there are two distinct spiritual qualities associated with the mitzvah of circumcision; and one (requiring performance of the entire Torah and its mitzvos) is a prerequisite to the other. Abraham performed all the rest of the Torah before attempting circumcision because he wanted to fulfill that prerequisite: he wanted to ensure that his performance of the mitzvah of circumcision would be of the highest quality possible.
Our sages say (Yoma 28:2) that our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, were so much “in tune” with the underlying spirituality of creation that they sensed all that G-d would later reveal to the Jews in the Torah; they were thus able to fulfill voluntarily all the mitzvos (commandments) of the Torah even before they had been given. Yet in this week’s Torah portion, Lech-Lecho, G-d commands Abraham to circumcise himself and his household; regarding this, the question is asked, If Abraham indeed observed the entire Torah, why had he not circumcised himself already? Why did he wait for a ‘special invitation,’ as it were, from G-d?
We will come to a better understanding of this after a
discussion of the concept and symbolism of circumcision itself, as expressed by
the verse (Deuteronomy 30:12) in which it is written that the Torah is not in
heaven that one might say, “who shall go up to the heavens for us” and get it
for us. The initial letters of each
word in the Hebrew phrase “who shall go up to the heavens for us combine to
form the Hebrew word for circumcision, miloh; the last letters of each
word spell out the Tetragrammaton, the ineffable four-letter name of G-d. This fact is related to the two verses, “And
you shall circumcise the foreskin of your hearts” (Deuteronomy 10:15), and “And
G-d, will circumcise your heart” (Deuteronomy 30:6). It will be noted that the first of these verses speaks of circumcision (of our hearts) as performed by us, and the second, as performed by G-d.
Specifically, each of these two verses refers to a distinct quality that can be termed “circumcision.” The first of these, our “circumcising the foreskin of our hearts,” is considered a form of worship that flows from below up to heaven, since it refers to sincere effort on our part to raise ourselves up, closer to G-d, by casting aside all extraneous worldly concerns; such concerns are seen as a “shell” or covering that prevents true love of G-d from penetrating our hearts. This is the underlying principle of repentance (the Hebrew word for which literally means “return”), in the sense of the verse (Deuteronomy 30:2), “And you shall return to G-d, your G-d” – i.e., we must strive to cast aside any superficial preoccupation with mundane matters that might have diverted our attention from holy pursuits.
This is especially so if one has become so engrossed in worldliness that he or she has actually transgressed the will of G-d (Heaven forbid); such a person must certainly strive to return to G-d by breaking through and casting aside the hardened covering of his or her heart and giving expression to the true nature of his or her soul, which is concerned only with the spiritual. The way to accomplish this is through fulfillment and observance of the Torah and its precepts. Indeed, our sages (of blessed memory) have said (Talmud, Sanhedrin 97b), “if the Jews accomplish t’shuva [“repentance-return,” as discussed above] they will be redeemed from exile; if not, they will not be redeemed.”
[This is appropriate, since the main idea behind the Jewish exile is that G-d does not reveal Himself to us as He did during the pre-exilic days of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. G-dliness, the spiritual element of life, is hidden by all the material concerns and temptations of living, and if we Jews do our part by sincerely attempting to rid ourselves of these extraneous material concerns in an effort to bring ourselves closer to G-d, then we are fit to be rewarded with the ending of the exile, the end to the concealment of G-dliness from our perception.]
To sum up, the first kind of “circumcision” mentioned
above, our circumcising the foreskin of our hearts, refers to our sincere
efforts to come close to
G-d by fulfilling the Torah and mitzvos, in the merit of which we will be redeemed from exile.
Now, regarding the period after the redemption and gathering in of the exiles, it is written (Deuteronomy 30:5), “And G-d your G-d will bring you into the land [of Israel] ... and He will benefit you.” This is an allusion to the second quality referred to as “circumcision” mentioned above, the one mentioned in the very next verse: “And G-d, your G-d, will circumcise your heart.” This is considered a revelation of G-dliness flowing from heaven above, downwards, since it is a reciprocation from G-d for our efforts to perceive spirituality. Whereas before the redemption, we had to try to remove the “foreskin” that concealed G-d from our perception, after the redemption G-d will reveal Himself to us (“And G-d will circumcise...”).
(This is what is meant by “And He will benefit you ... more than [He benefited] your fathers.” The Hebrew word “benefit you,” which literally means “do you good,” hints at an especially sublime level of Divine revelation which, according to Jewish tradition, was hidden away by G-d at the beginning of time for the enjoyment of the righteous in the Messianic future to come. This is the meaning of the verse (Psalms 31:20), “How great is Your goodness which You have hidden away for those who fear You.” The revelation of this “goodness” in the future to come will be even greater than the revelations experienced by our forefathers. And this great revelation of G-d’s goodness is symbolized by circumcision (in the sense of “And G-d will circumcise”), as seen by the fact that Moses, who possessed some element of this level, was born circumcised, and regarding this it is written (Exodus 2:2), “And she [Moses’ mother] saw that he was good.”)
It develops, then, that there are two distinct spiritual levels, each referred to as circumcision, and one (that initiated by us, through Torah and mitzvos) is considered a prerequisite to the other. This is the allusion of the first verse we discussed, “Who shall go up to the heavens for us.” G-d gave us the Torah so that we might live by it and relate to Him thereby; He deliberately placed it within our reach, rather than filling it with impossible laws, and this is what is meant by “it is not in heaven [but rather, it is within our grasp].”
Now, at first glance, this may seem puzzling, for is not the Torah the very Wisdom and Will of G-d Himself? How can the Wisdom of G-d possibly be within our grasp? The answer is that G-d, the Omnipotent, miraculously allows His own Wisdom and Will to be grasped (and actually carried out physically) by us Jews, and this wondrous “descent” of the Torah from heaven down to earth is symbolized by the letters of the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of G-d. (The first letter, yud, looks like a small point, a dot, in its Hebrew written form, a fact which represents G-d’s condensation of His Wisdom into a form comprehensible to us – compacting it into a bite-sized point, so to speak. The next letter, the letter hay, resembles a square, which has both length and breadth. This symbolizes the expansion of that compressed dot into a form understandable in both extent and breadth. The next letter, vav, a straight vertical line, represents the coming down of this now-accessible Torah from its origin in heaven above, to us on earth, and so on.)
Because the Tetragrammaton represents (and indeed, mystically speaking, facilitates) the drawing down of the Torah to our level, the Torah is often called “the Torah of G-d [in which phrase the Hebrew name for G-d is the Tetragrammaton].” That is why it is the last letters of the words in our verse which spell out the Tetragrammaton, while the first letters spell miloh, circumcision: the verse is referring to the sublime level of “And G-d will circumcise,” a level only attainable after the redemption by fulfilling the entire Torah as prerequisite. Since this sublime level of circumcision is indeed heavenly, it is represented by the first letters of the phrase, while the Torah, about which it is written, “it is not in heaven,” as explained above, is represented by the Tetragrammaton in the last letters.
This fact – that the higher level of circumcision is considered more sublime than the intellectually comprehensible Torah – affords us an insight into the saying of our sages (Talmud, Nedarim 31b), “Great is circumcision, for regarding it thirteen pacts were established.” A pact represents something which transcends intellectual comprehension: two friends might establish a pact between themselves, for example, so that even if one eventually wrongs the other, and reason dictates the dissolution of their friendship, they will, by invoking the memory of the pact, make it through the stormy period of their relationship and remain friends. And the phrase “great is circumcision” alludes to the level of “great circumcision” (G-d circumcising our hearts), which, as noted above, transcends the intellectually comprehensible Torah and is therefore associated with the concept of pacts. Specifically, the “thirteen pacts” correspond to the thirteen attributes of Divine mercy, which are considered to be on a higher spiritual level than the Torah (which is why the thirteen attributes of Divine mercy are instrumental in atonement for transgressions (G-d forbid) of the Torah): in order for it to be possible at all for this sublime level of “great circumcision” to benefit us creatures of this world, these thirteen supra-rational “pacts” are necessary, because they must accomplish something which is impossible from a strictly rational perspective.
We can now appreciate why Abraham fulfilled all the rest of the Torah before performing the mitzvah of circumcision. Abraham, wanting to come as close to G-d as possible, first observed all the other mitzvos of the Torah in an effort to merit revelation of the “greater circumcision” level discussed above. The fact that he succeeded is beautifully hinted at in the Hebrew wording of the verse (Genesis 13:26), “In the midst of this day, Abraham was circumcised” – was circumcised, in the passive voice, as opposed to the active voice, circumcised himself. The active voice would have implied the prerequisite level of circumcision, that associated with the verse, “And you shall circumcise the foreskin of your hearts,” but Abraham, having already achieved that level, was worthy of “And G-d ... will circumcise” – hence the wording, Abraham was circumcised.
That is also why it says, “In the midst [the Hebrew word for which also means ‘essence’] of this day, etc.” The phrase “this day” implies a particular day; the reference is to the time period after the redemption, which is frequently called “a day that is completely good.” The essence and outstanding feature of this Messianic Day is the revelation of that great good discussed above, and when this level was revealed to Abraham, then he was circumcised.
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Ó 2001 Dach Holdings, Ltd. Please note that the foregoing is an informal synopsis by a private person, and that, therefore, errors are possible. Also, the Hebrew original contains much more than could possibly be presented here, and constitutes a much more direct transmission of the Alter Rebbe’s teachings. Thus, for those with the ability to learn in the original, this synopsis should not be considered a substitute for the maamar. Good Shabbos!